Are some languages harder to learn?
Здравствуйте! Olá! Welcome back to Adventures in Language. In this article, we’re answering a big question — are some languages easier to learn than others? The short answer is: Yes! To learn more, let’s take a look at the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI’s) language categories, which group languages according to how long it takes students to learn them.
What is the FSI, and why does it have any business ranking languages?
The FSI is an organization within the U.S. State Department, dedicated to training U.S. Diplomats and other professionals for careers in foreign affairs. Through its School of Language Studies, the FSI has been training learners in foreign languages since 1947, and they currently offer over 800 language courses in about 70 languages around the world. It’s in their best interest to know how long it takes students to learn languages so they can plan language curricula that may be critical to foreign missions. The FSI categorizes languages based on how long it takes students, on average, to reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in each language. This level of proficiency is defined as a score of 3 out of 5 on the speaking and reading components of the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale. (The ILR is the standard language proficiency scale used by the U.S. federal government. For reference, a score of 3 on the ILR corresponds to Superior on the ACTFL scale.) These language categories are based on 70 years of teaching languages to American diplomats, who are, by and large, native speakers of English.
The ILR is the standard language proficiency scale used by the U.S. federal government. A score of 3 on the ILR corresponds to Superior on the ACTFL scale or C2 on the CEFR scale.
A quick note: The FSI categorizes 66 languages. There are over 7,000 languages spoken around the world, so this list is by no means exhaustive.
The FSI Language Categories
Category I: Easy Languages
"Languages more similar to English"
Mango offers all 9 of the Category I languages. Click the links to learn more!
Category I languages take about 24 weeks to learn. So if you’re looking to master a language in about 6 months, you might try one of these.
Simplified language tree depicting relationships between Proto-Indo-European languages
Why are these languages relatively easy to learn? The simplest explanation is that they are most similar to English. Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish are all, like English, part of the Germanic language family. They share many aspects of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar with English, to the point that some sentences are easy to understand as long as you understand English. Check out these examples:
Het is niet warm in de winter.
It is not warm in the winter.
Det där är min syster, Anki.
That is my sister, Anki.
The other languages in this category — Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Romanian — are Romance languages. English shares many cognates, or similar sounding words, with these languages. For example, here are the words for “family” in each of these languages:
Spanish — familia
Italian — famiglia
French — famille
Portuguese — família
Romanian — familie
Category II: Somewhat Easy Languages
Mango offers all 5 of the Category II languages. Click the links to learn more!
Category II includes a small but rather diverse set of languages, which take about 36 weeks, or 9 months, to learn. German is in this category, which might seem a bit surprising, as it is, unsurprisingly, a Germanic language (as is English!). Here’s an example of a German sentence that sounds pretty similar to English:
Hier ist mein Vater.
Here is my father.
In spite of many similarities, German has some complex grammatical features like case marking, where words change their form depending on their role in a sentence, like whether they are the subject or object. To make things more complicated, case interacts with three different grammatical genders in German — masculine, feminine, and neuter — as well as number, or whether a word is plural or singular.
Other languages in Category II are Swahili, a lingua franca in Eastern and Central Africa, Haitian Creole, a French-based creole language with influences from African languages, and Indonesian and Malay, two very closely-related languages spoken in Southeast Asia. All of these languages, while quite different from English and, for the most part, from each other, use the Roman alphabet (that’s the same one English uses), and have relatively simple grammars and phonological systems — for example, none of these languages are tonal languages, which can be very difficult to learn.
Category III: Hard Languages
"Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English"
44 weeks (1100 class hours)
Category III languages take, on average, 44 weeks to learn. That’s almost a year of intensive language training! There are 47 languages ranked in this category, and they come from a variety of language families. Several, like Bengali, Greek, and Russian, use non-Roman writing systems, so in addition to pronunciation and spelling, students have to learn new letters or symbols.
Many have complex grammatical systems. For example, Hebrew interweaves meaning-based roots with grammatical patterns (rather than tacking grammatical information on the end, like an -ed for past tense verbs or an -s for plural nouns). German, which has 4 grammatical cases, has nothing on Category III member Hungarian, which has around 20! And Thai has a vast set of classifiers, which are tiny words or affixes that are different for different types of nouns. Some noun types that have classifiers in Thai include one use for clothing, another for pieces of clothing, one for boats and planes, and another for cars and vehicles that are not boats or planes. All in all, there are a few hundred Thai classifiers. So you can imagine that this is a lot for a learner to remember! Several of the Category III languages, including Thai, are tonal languages. This means that words that differ only in tone can have different meanings, just like words that differ in one vowel (e.g., beat vs. bit) have different meanings in English. Another challenging aspect of the Category III languages is vocabulary. Many of these languages have very few cognates with English, so learners don’t get the head start that comes with learning a language like French or Dutch.
Category IV: Super Hard Languages
“Exceptionally difficult for native English speakers”
It takes US diplomats, on average, 88 weeks to learn the languages in this category — that’s twice as long as it takes to learn the “hard languages” in Category III! So what makes these languages “super hard”?
For starters, all five of these languages use non-Roman writing systems that work quite differently from the alphabets used for English and many other European languages. This means that students learning these languages need to spend quite some time learning how to read them, which isn’t really the case for languages like Spanish or Swahili.
In Mandarin and Cantonese, a single character can represent an entire word or part of a word. There are over 50,000 Chinese characters, and while you can consider yourself literate if you know around 2-3,000, that’s still a whole lot more than 26 letters! The Japanese writing system also uses traditional Chinese characters, along with two other scripts, and it’s not uncommon to see sentences written using all three at once. To the untrained eye, Korean may look like a character-based writing system, but it consists of letters arranged into blocks and is actually one of the easiest writing systems to learn.
However, Korean pronunciation can be tricky. For example, Korean has three different versions of voiceless stop consonants, which are the /p/, /t/, and /k/ sounds. So the words below all have completely different meanings, even though they probably sound very similar to someone who does not speak Korean.
When it comes to spoken language, Mandarin and Cantonese have complex tonal systems and Japanese has meaningful variations in pitch — this means that intonation is extremely important for understanding and being understood, which is not easy for speakers of languages that don’t use contrastive tones or pitch.
As far as grammar goes, these languages aren’t necessarily more difficult than those in Category III, but they do have some features that can be quite tricky for native speakers of English. For one, they all use classifiers — those tiny words that indicate what kind of noun you’re talking about — as well as particles, which provide information like grammatical functions and relationships between words. The cultures that these languages originate from are also very different from Western cultures, and this, too, is apparent in the languages. For example, Korean and Japanese use honorifics, where the relationship between speakers influences how they speak to each other. In fact, it’s common practice in these cultures to ask someone how old they are when you first meet them — しつれいですが、おとしは (shitsuree desu ga, otoshi wa?)— because this helps you determine how to speak to them.
What about Arabic? Arabic is written from right-to-left, and vowels generally either appear as small markings above or below symbols or are completely omitted and inferred from context. Like Hebrew and other Semitic languages, Arabic also interweaves meaning-based roots and grammatical patterns. When it comes to speaking, many of the sounds of Arabic pose a real challenge to learners – for example, there are several consonants that are pronounced toward the back of the vocal tract, in the throat, which is difficult to model for learners. You can’t show someone how to move the muscles in their throat! Even a phrase as basic as “Good morning” in Arabic — صَبَاح الخَيْر (SabaaH l-kheir) — contains three very challenging consonants. On top of all this, Arabic has several spoken dialects that can be quite different from each other, so learners need to know which variety of Arabic they should study. And knowing Iraqi Arabic will only get you so far if you end up in Morocco. There is also a formal, written dialect of Arabic — Modern Standard Arabic — that is used widely throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Proficient Arabic speakers should have a grasp on both the standard and the local dialect, as well as when it’s appropriate to use each one. So this adds another layer of difficulty to learning Arabic.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can try learning any of these languages with the Mango app. We offer several dialects of Arabic and even some specialty courses in these languages!
Well, there you have it! An answer to the question — are some languages harder to learn?
To recap, the FSI ranks languages into 4 categories of difficulty based on their observations of how long it takes U.S. diplomats to learn them. Languages like Spanish and Dutch are pretty easy, but Chinese and Arabic could be nearly 4 times as hard!
Before we send you on your way, we want to leave you with some caveats:
First, the amount of time that it takes to learn any language will vary among individuals. These estimates are averages, based on learners who are likely to have high language aptitude and motivation, and are able to dedicate a lot of time to studying. It might take you more time — or less — to learn these languages! (See, for example, Isbell and colleagues’ 2019 study on proficiency gains in different languages in a university setting.)
Second, as I mentioned earlier, a list containing 66 languages is by no means exhaustive. There are over 7,000 languages spoken around the world. The languages on this list are ones that are particularly important for U.S. national security and diplomacy. So what about all of the other languages? Well, it’s probably safe to assume that most of the world’s languages will probably fall into Category III, the “hard languages.” After all, learning a language as an adult is usually pretty hard! (But oh so fun and rewarding!) Some might be a bit easier, like Afrikaans, which is very similar to Dutch. Other dialects of Chinese — there are hundreds!! — might be super hard…unless you already speak Mandarin or Cantonese.
And this notion of language similarity brings us to our last caveat. You’ve probably noticed throughout this article that part of what makes a language easy or difficult has to do with how similar it is to English, the native language of most U.S. diplomats. Maybe you’re wondering — if Turkish is my first language, would Kazakh really be that hard to learn? Well, the answer to that is… probably not!
We can compare languages to each other in terms of things like the number of words they contain, the complexity of their grammars, and the uniqueness of their sounds, and some will look more difficult than others. But when it comes down to it, the difficulty of a language depends largely on how similar it is to the languages you already know. In our next Science Behind Language Learning article, we’ll talk about how the languages you speak can help — or hurt — when it comes to learning a new language.
Thanks for reading!
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Fill out the form below for some free materials on the Foreign Service Institute’s language category rankings, including some illustrative examples of the language features mentioned in this article. До свидания! Até logo! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article. To embark on your next language adventure, visit us at mangolanguages.com!
Wondering what languages were used in today’s article? Здравствуйте (ZDRASTvuytye) and До свидания (da sviDAniya) mean “hello” and “goodbye,” respectively, in Russian, a Slavic language native to Russia and spoken widely throughout the world, especially in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Olá! (ohLAH) and Até logo! (ahTEH LAHgoo) mean “hi” and “see you soon” in Portuguese, a Romance language spoken in Portugal and around in the world in many former Portuguese colonies, including Brazil, where over 70% of the world’s current Portuguese speakers can be found. This article also includes words and phrases in Dutch, Swedish, German, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, Korean, Japanese, and Arabic. Interested in learning Russian or Portuguese, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click to check out our courses!
References and suggested readings to explore more about this topic:
World Atlas of Language Structures — a rich linguistic resource containing information about the structures and properties of different languages
Elevate your language-learning journey to new heights with the following downloadable resources.